Computing Profession Departments

Revisiting ACM’s Open-Conference Principle

  1. Article
  2. Author
  3. Footnotes
CACM Senior Editor Moshe Y. Vardi

One of the Presidential Task Forces (PTFs) announceda by ACM President Yannis Ioannidis earlier this year focuses on "Open Science." I would like to see that PTF develop a detailed set of guiding principles for conference-site selection. Principles, however, must be translated to concrete decisions in the context of a messy reality. ACM should establish a standing committee on conference-site selection to make such decisions in a deliberate and transparent way.

Let us start with some background. In March 2017, I discussedb ACM's Open-Conference Principle, which states: "The open exchange of ideas and the freedom of thought and expression are central to the aims and goals of ACM and its conferences. These aims and goals require an environment that recognizes the inherent worth of every person and group, that fosters dignity, understanding, and mutual respect, and that embraces diversity."

I addressed the tension between this principle and some (then) recent political developments. In 2016–2017, many U.S. state legislators considered or enacted legislation that restricted access to multiuser restrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated facilities based on a certain definition of sex or gender ("bathroom bills"). In response to the North Carolina bathroom bill, ACM's SIGMOD Executive Committee moved its 2017 conference out of North Carolina to a new location. I was critical of that decision.

I argued the bathroom-bill issue was dwarfed by an Executive Order issued by U.S. President Trump in January 2017, which banned nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. I asked whether ACM should respond to the travel ban by moving all conferences out of the U.S. I concluded that boycotts may feel right, but they are rarely productive.

Well, the world has become even more complicated since then. In February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale attack against Ukraine, starting the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II. The invasion also caused the largest refugee crisis in Europe. Russian military forces also launched attacks on civilian targets, including hospitals. In response to this brutal aggression, many corporations and associations have severed relationships with Russia.

ACM, however, stayed silent for a while on the issue of conferences in Russia. In March 2022, I started a petition calling on ACM to declare publicly that, while this invasion continues: ACM will not hold or plan to hold any conference in Russia, and ACM will not be affiliated with any conference in Russia. In response to the petition, on March 23, 2022, ACM posted on its website the following text: "On March 3, 2022, ACM's Executive Committee decided not to hold any conferences in Russia while the conflict in the Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis in Europe continue."

Obviously, I had changed my mind on boycotts, at least some boycotts. Why? I considered Russia's conduct to be egregious, so shocking the conscience, that people of good will from around the world must show their opposition to the unprovoked Russian aggression against Ukraine. As I learned, ACM essentially agreed with me.

Recent political developments in the U.S. concerning access to abortion are further testing my no-boycott stance. In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, its own 1973 ruling that the U.S. Constitution generally protects a pregnant individual's liberty to have an abortion. In response to that, many U.S. states have passed laws drastically restricting access to abortion. For example, the state of Florida passed a bill in April 2023 banning all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Note that, as of early May, ACM is planning to hold its June 2023 Federated Computing Research Conference (FCRC) in Orlando, FL.

The issue now is the health and safety of conference participants. State abortion bans threatenc access to emergency reproductive cared by introducing complex legislative restrictions around what counts as a medical emergency. Pregnant individuals who are considering attending FCRC'23 in person may not want to assume this risk. Avoiding holding fully in-person ACM conferences in locations with strict abortion bans is not a boycott. Rather it is a decision that reflects ACM's concern for the well-being of conference participants. In fact, for the same concern, the American Physical Society decidede in 2020 to consider police conduct when choosing meeting locations.

This is an important and difficult issue, but ACM must address it. Hence my initial recommendation.

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More